March 17, 2014
By Rich Hidy ‘16
If there is any student-athlete that symbolizes the transformation of the Notre Dame swimming program over the past few seasons, an ideal candidate is junior breaststroke and freestyle swimmer Zach Stephens.
Stephens, who is from Bloomsburg, Pa., was a three-sport letterwinner in high school and seemed destined to swim at the collegiate level because all three of his siblings are athletes and two of them have pursued swimming at the college level. Stephens’ sister, Jessica, graduated from Notre Dame in 2007 after her career as an Irish swimmer.
“Notre Dame was always my main choice. I was always attracted to the university,” Stephens said. “Of all the schools I was looking at, it had the best combination of academics and athletics. That was the main draw.”
Stephens said his sister’s influence and a general sense of deep family connections displayed at the university encouraged him to commit to Notre Dame to swim at the college level.
“It’s something special that’s pretty hard to get anywhere else. The sense of family here is very strong,” Stephens said.
Stephens, a two time high school All-American, began making his mark at Notre Dame during his first two years with the team, helping the Irish win their fifth and sixth BIG EAST titles as well as breaking the university and Rolfs Aquatic Center pool records in the 200 breaststroke. Stephens contributed heavily in the 2012 BIG EAST meet by swimming the then seventh-best time ever recorded, 54.66, in the 100 breast stroke, and he also finished third in the 200 breaststroke final in that meet.
Stephens credits many of his early accomplishments as an Irish underclassman to his training upon his arrival on campus.
“I had barely lifted at all in high school and I gained 20 pounds in the first six months of being here, so a lot of my success I attribute to gaining that weight and gaining that strength and power,” Stephens said. “That transferred really well from the weight room to the pool. Ultimately, that really helped me improve as a swimmer a lot more.”
Stephens didn’t just develop outside of the pool and in the gym. He built his craft in the water by creating a wide-ranging skill set that encompassed more than just his primary specialty, the breaststroke.
The Irish coaches began working with Stephens to become an adept sprint swimmer, especially in the 50 freestyle swim. Stephens currently holds the second-fastest time on the Notre Dame roster in the 50 free this season, which he set at the 2013 Hawkeye Invitational with a time of 20.26. His ability to excel in sprint swimming wasn’t a natural occurrence, since he primarily focused on the breaststroke from the time he took up swimming at a young age.
“I’ve been primarily a breaststroker for most of my career. Over these past 15 years, really,” Stephens said. “In college, [Notre Dame] developed me into a sprint freestyler and I think that originated from gaining that muscle mass. Most sprinters are bulkier because they need that extra muscle to pull themselves through the water faster. I think I definitely transformed in college into more sprinting events, which helped me in my 50 freestyle.”
Stephens has been able to avoid becoming overwhelmed by the demands of meets and training sessions by swimming a multitude of events, including the freestyle, IM, and breaststroke, in which he has produced top times within each category of events during the season.
“It’s really nice to diversify my events. Swimming the same events every meet would get pretty boring,” Stephens said. “I’ve been pretty lucky that I can swim a wide array of events. It’s fun to switch it up every once in a while.”
If Stephens was able to develop a name for himself his freshman year, his sophomore season was a breakout year, just as it was for the entire program. The Irish not only won the 2013 BIG EAST Championship after qualifying a dozen swimmers to compete in the 2012 Olympic Trials, but they also sent nine swimmers to the 2013 NCAA Championship.
“This team has really transformed the last few years. We’ve gotten much faster,” Stephens said. “Just look at the number of guys we’ve sent to NCAA’s the last two years… it really displays how much we’ve been improving in recent years.”
Stephens was also named the Notre Dame Monogram Club’s Most Valuable Player after earning points for the Irish at the NCAA Championship with a 16th place performance in the 200 breast. Stephens posted a time of 1:56.43 in that event to claim honorable mention All-America accolades. He was also able to achieve Notre Dame records in the 200 breaststroke at the BIG EAST Championship and the 200 medley relay, where his “A” team finished first with a time of 1:26.33.
“It was amazing to be named the Monogram Club’s Most Valuable Performer for last year,” Stephens said. “Coming in, I really didn’t think I would be able to be the Most Valuable Performer for the team, but I’ve improved so much over the past few years and I’m really grateful for that improvement.”
Coming in as a part of a highly touted 2011 recruiting class that was ranked 12th in the nation by CollegeSwimming.com, Stephens has remained focused on helping to pave a legacy for the team as it closes its first year in the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) and in the final season in the nearly 30-year tenure of Irish head coach Tim Welsh. Welsh has been at the forefront of overseeing the development of countless student-athletes and the progression of a swimming program that annually competes on the NCAA’s biggest stage. Stephens believes that Welsh exemplifies the roles of a prototypical coach, which include aiding in the growth and molding of individuals as well as in athletic development.
“Coach Welsh really develops people as people first and then as swimmers,” Stephens said. “He focuses on the whole person and not just how you are in the pool. He really cares about who you are outside of the pool, and I think he does an excellent job of developing people into caring, compassionate individuals who will contribute to society in the future in a positive way.”
Stephens is a double major in marketing and economics, and has proven he has the management skills to balance both his academic and athletic pursuits by being named a BIG EAST Academic All-American last year.
“Swimming in the pool and lifting 20 hours a week and then balancing all the academics and trying to have a social life as well is pretty difficult,” Stephens said. “That’s what college is though, trying to figure out all you can handle. I’m just trying to develop as a person.”
Stephens will be one of eight Notre Dame team members who will compete at the 2014 NCAA Championship on March 27-29 at the Lee and Joe Jamail Texas Swimming Center in Austin, Texas. He will make his second straight appearance at the national meet after enjoying a standout showing last month in Notre Dame’s first ever appearance at the ACC Championship.
Stephens swept the 100 and 200 breaststroke events, and added a runner-up finish in the 200 IM to pick up a team-high three all-conference honors. Stephens broke the longest standing ACC meet record time in the 100 breaststroke (52.59) during his gold medal swim, and added another program record in the 200 breaststroke (1:53.34) later in the competition as the top finisher in the distance.